Understanding COVID-19 symptoms: Allergies, flu or coronavirus? And when should I see a doctor?


Steve Marcus

A health care worker with the UNLV School of Medicine tests a patient for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Sun, Apr 5, 2020 (2 a.m.)

As the spread of coronavirus outpaces available testing, one side effect that comes with the plethora of already listed symptoms is paranoia over whether an individual does in fact have this novel coronavirus.

The most common COVID-19 symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some patients have also reported symptoms that are present in a broader range of illnesses such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea.

The onset of seasonal spring allergies certainly hasn’t helped in adding into this paranoia. Every cough, sneeze or scratchy throat is bound to send someone further down a path of anxiety.

Still, there are still some things to remember that distinguish COVID-19 symptoms from other ailments and illnesses, said Dr. Brian Labus, an epidemiology expert at the UNLV School of Public Health.

“One of the biggest differences that is easy to identify is fever,” he said. “Allergies don’t cause fever. If you’ve had seasonal allergies, and you’re having those similar types of symptoms, that’s likely what it’s going to be.”

Labus, who serves on a five-member statewide task force to help advise on the pandemic, added that it would be more likely to have the virus and exhibit no symptoms than it would be to have it and exhibit some symptoms but no fever.

“If you do get symptoms, the fever is one of those telling signs that it is an infectious disease,” he said.

Having a lack of taste or smell is also a reported symptom of COVID-19. But Labus said these reports are mostly anecdotal.

“We are talking about a virus that affects your respiratory system, and those could be things that happen in some people,” he said. “However, we can’t say anything definitive at this point. We can’t say if they truly are symptoms of this disease, and if so, if they are useful in diagnosing it.”

It’s also important to note that being an asymptomatic carrier is quite common with the coronavirus, Labus said.

“What we’ve seen from one of the studies done on the cruise ship in Japan is that about half of those who tested positive had no symptoms,” he said.

That’s why Labus and most health experts recommend assuming you already have coronavirus and practice social distancing if you must go out.

Treating symptoms at home

Until a vaccine is approved, there is no treatment or cure for the coronavirus itself, but there are ways to treat symptoms at home, Labus said.

Over-the-counter medications that contain ingredients like acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol) can help treat the pain while cough medicines like Mucinex, Robitussin or DayQuil/NyQuil can help treat other symptoms, he said.

On March 15, French Minister of Health Olivier Véran advised people infected with the coronavirus to not use ibuprofen or aspirin to treat symptoms of the disease and to take acetaminophen instead. Some conclude that ibuprofen aggravates coronavirus symptoms, which Labus said there is no evidence to support, calling it an unfounded rumor.

“There’s really no reason to avoid certain over-the-counter medications,” Labus said. “The World Health Organization does not discourage anyone from taking ibuprofen.”

For the time being, the only cure for COVID-19 is time.

“You can take something for the cough, you can take something for the fever, but it’s still going to take time for your body to fight it off,” he said.

Once someone starts to feel better, Labus said it’s best to wait 72 hours after symptoms are gone to leave the house.

When should I wear a mask?

The CDC and President Donald Trump are recommending cloth face masks be worn by anyone going out in public to mitigate the virus spread from those who are asymptomatic. The institution makes it clear that these are cloth face masks, not the N95 masks that are in such short supply now.

Some health experts have recommended that only health care workers and people who are sick should be wearing masks to mitigate spread of the disease, and that most face masks do very little in protecting a healthy person from infection.

“The particles that carry coronavirus are too small to be stopped by surgical or dust masks, so all they provide is a false sense of security,” Labus said. “You need a special type of mask, called an N95, to provide any protection. They need to be fitted to your face, worn properly, and removed in a way that keeps you from infecting yourself. These masks are in short supply right now, even in hospitals. Stocking up on these masks makes it harder for medical providers treating patients with coronavirus to protect themselves.”

Many across the globe are wearing homemade masks. You can too.

Labus said the initial hesitation behind making this recommendation was due to the short supply of N95 masks, and the worry that people would relax on social distancing with masks potentially giving them a false sense of protection from infection.

When to see a doctor

The advice most experts are relaying is that if you’re sick (coronavirus or not) you need to stay home. There’s no reason to go out, as even groceries can be delivered and left at your doorstep.

Labus said around 80% of coronavirus cases are mild and the symptoms can be treated at home.

While the coronavirus has similar characteristics of the common flu — which for the most part can be managed at home — there are a few tell-tale signs that someone does need to be hospitalized.

Emergency symptoms include breathing problems, persistent pain or pressure to the chest, confusion of bluish lips and face, according to the CDC.

“We don’t typically see that level of severity with the flu,” Labus said. “Although most people with either one of those diseases are things that can just be managed at home by yourself, if things get bad, coronavirus is much worse than flu.”

If symptoms do get bad, the CDC recommends seeking immediate emergency attention and to wear a mask before leaving the house.

If you’re still unsure, the CDC offers a self-checker to help guide people in making the right medical decisions.

There are also local call centers available to help you make decisions based on your symptoms. For specific answers, call the Southern Nevada Health District at 702-759-4636 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., or the UNLV School of Medicine at 702-583-4408 between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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